Closer to Screaming Eagle than “Extra Heavy Malaga,” the newest kosher varietals appeal to a generation of observant Jews schooled in cult wines and premier crus. Memories of childhood Passover Seders aside, there’s actually little conflict between fine winemaking and kosher law, which mandates harvesting from vines more than four years old, leaving fields fallow every seventh year, growing no grains, fruits or vegetables between the vines, and handling only by Sabbath observant Jewish males. Even ultrakosher mevushal wines, which once required a procedure akin to boiling, may now be flash pasteurized, which some non-kosher wineries such as Château Beaucastel claim enhances their vintages.
Winemaking and the Jewish people are a pairing made in heaven. Literally. “Wine has been a cherished centerpiece of Jewish celebration for centuries,” maintains Martin Davidson, Communications Director of Royal Wines, a leading importer and producer of kosher labels. “Since Noah stepped off the boat and planted his first vine, wine has accompanied Jewish rituals from circumcisions to weddings and every celebration along the way including the Passover Seder, which is highlighted by four cups of wine. Wine was used so often in our home,” recalls Davidson, “my grandmother used to make her own, although it wasn’t exactly Haut Medoc.”
To meet these sacramental needs, Jews have been producing wine since biblical times, often under trying conditions. Sometimes the grapes were less than ideal, such as the “foxy” Concords immigrants found in America a century ago. Sometimes, when there were no grapes at all, wine was even cajoled from raisins. Happily, Mediterranean Israel is superb grape growing country, whose long north south axis and varied microclimates were not lost on Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite, who in 1882 founded Carmel Winery (carmelwines.co.il in Hebrew), still the country’s largest.
Today 150 wineries flourish within Israel’s 7,992 square miles, 5% the area of California, where boutique labels are emerging to feed a new demand for high-end bottles. Domaine du Castel (castel.co.il), named for a chain of castles built by Crusaders on the road to Jerusalem, produces a creamy burgundy style Chardonnay, C Blanc du Castel 2003, in the clay and limestone Judean Hills, considered the country’s premier cru region. Benhaim (www.benhaim.co.il/eng/wines.htm), in the Upper Galilee, puts out the deep purple cult favorite Cabernet Sauvignon ’02, bursting with black cherries and dried plums, and Segal’s, a progressive division of the country’s second largest winery, Barkan (barkan-winery.com), is known for its fruit forward Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon ’02, as well as for crafting labels from wine leaves. Yet while Israel’s thriving wineries may appear bucolic these days, a few of the most historic reflect the region’s turbulent past. At Binyamina Wines (www.binyaminawines.com), for example, the visitor’s center built by Baron de Rothschild as a perfume factory in 1925, where oenophiles now sip a complex Chardonnay Reserve, was a 1940’s hideout for the Hagana, a pre-state Jewish defense force.
As awareness of fine kosher varietals accelerates, wineries worldwide are jumping into production. A favorite bottle from Marlborough, New Zealand’s Goose Bay, a division of Spencer Hill Estate (spencerhillwine.com), is the Sauvignon Blanc 2005 with tropical fruit and tangy gooseberry notes, and the first attempt at kosher wine by Spain’s Cellar de Capcanes, a ripe tannic Peraj Ha’Abib 2003, has been so successful they’re making non-kosher bottles in the same style. In the U.S., Herzog Wine Cellars (herzogwinecellars.com) has built a new 77,000 square-foot state the art kosher facility in Oxnard, California to process artisan releases like their toasty 2004 Herzog Special Reserve Chardonnay, as well as wines from other producers such as the spicy Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 made by Wine Enthusiast contributing editor Jeff Morgan’s Napa-based Covenant Wines (covenantwines.com). And since every celebration requires fine champagne, Laurent Perrier (laurentperrierus.com) creates a kosher version by employing observant Jews for the hands on work.
Now that wine lovers are catching on to new style kosher wines, jolting sales from $130 million in 2003 to almost $200 million this year, it looks like kosher winemakers will be releasing some intriguing vintages in the next few years, ample grounds for one more joyful Passover toast: L’Chaim—To Life!
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